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Jack Featherstone (and his world of parallel universes)

The magic realist Jack Featherstone is the same age as Richard Larter. Both were born in 1929. By coincidence, both are currently exhibiting in adjoining galleries at the ANU School of Art. Jack is holding his second solo exhibition in thirty-five years. Dick is exhibiting in the group exhibition This Way Up, one of a series of shows in Canberra which explore the nature of contemporary abstraction. Of course, Dick Larter has exhibited in innumerable exhibitions over his illustrious career. Jack has kept his art to himself.

Clearly Jack is no abstractionist, but without the abstract sensations of sublimity his paintings would not exist. In music, for instance, it is the passing notes, or the dominant sevenths of the symphonies he listens to while he paints, which confirm his motivation to paint. Whether in the bush, or on the main street of Braidwood, it is those fleeting moments of existential clarity that suggest to him the subjects for his paintings. When Jack speaks about his stimulus to paint a particular image, it is sometimes as if the scene has taken him by surprise. He relates how seeing the intense blue of the mountains in his view of Mt Dampier: “it was just like that”, he said, as he recalled calling out to his son: “stop! stop! I must record this in my head!”

It seems to me the most relevant way of accounting for work like this is to look back to the Magical Realism of 1920s Germany. Franz Roh was the first art historian to apply the term to the New Objectivity of the post-expressionists. For Roh, it was a way of pointing towards the heightened objectivity of a generation of painters led by George Grosz and Otto Dix who were establishing a path away from the “shocking exoticism” of expressionism, and skirting around the avant-gardist revolutions of Dada and Surrealism. This was a moment when Roh noticed a movement towards a kind of intensified genre painting, “a style that celebrates the mundane”. These artists, according to Roh, embodied a “calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces”. This led to a particular kind of hyper-objectivity where the depiction of the everyday “once again becomes the most intense pleasure of painting”. Subsequently the concept was appropriated by literature to describe the qualities of post-war European and (particularly) South American novelists. Unlike Australian art history, a whole string of Australian writers have also been associated with these ideas, most recently the novelist Glenda Guest, here interviewed by Jack’s son Nigel. Parallel universes, indeed.

And so it seemed to me that almost a century later, our Jack Featherstone has invented a painting mode which had much in common with the motives of his predecessors. He shares a similar capacity to see the extraordinary in the everyday, and depicts his experiences in minute detail. He has produced a way of observing the world as if from some out-of-body perspective, and his painting has evolved into a similar style, worthy of the attribution as a latter-day “Magic Realist”. When you see a number of his works you will notice how he paints his scenes from a floating perspective, a few meters above the ground, above the trig points on the tops of the mountains from which he depicts a scene, or just above the surface of the street in his townscapes.

His experiences in the bush provide him with a choice of materials as the substrate of his pictures, whether pieces of rock, stones or the pieces of bark or wood. Each “must have a sense of place”, on which he can imagine, project a painting, even if they are the very large pieces harvested from dead eucalypts near Tilba Tilba, or the seemingly impossibly heavy slabs of stone he collects on expedition. These then become the direct reference for his paintings to their place of origin. While sometimes the shape and contour of the material directly determines its pictorial form, or in other cases the picture is made to fit its eccentric frame, creating a kind of dynamic synthesis between these two elements.

As we were hanging the show, Matt Smith and I both took pleasure in the way the irregularity of the materials on which Jack paints produces their engagingly distinctive pictorial effects.  Unlike the window-effect or the architectonic conventions by which we view rectilinear pictures, Jack’s paintings appear like chunks of reality: “as if fallen from the sky”, said Matt. Their irregularity against the white gallery wall sometimes suggest a kind of rupture in the space-time of experience. Again, this “magical” sense of parallel realities is reinforced by sensations such as these.

Want more? You can listen to Jack interviewed on ABC Radio here. There’s also a nice piece by Jacqueline Williams on p7 of the CT (Oct 7th). And the artist will be present in the gallery from midday on Saturday. Or you can follow the thread of previous posts by typing Jack in the search box. And here’s his son Nigel, writing a beautifully familial piece on his own blog. And today (12th) a longer piece by Jacqueline Williams in the CT’s Times2 section…

Jack Featherstone: Magic Realist

Note to Canberra iconophiles: Jack is exhibiting this truckload of treasures at the ANU School of Art Foyer Gallery opening tomorrow at 6.00 pm. The exhibition will close on October 16.

a close call

Jack Featherstone’s recent illness left him immobilised for a period of time. But he says it was his capacity to remember his favourite music that kept him going. Once he was back in action, he reflected on his experience. This is his vision of Handel’s Messiah. As you see, the judges at the Canberra Show showered it with plaudits.

Forever Young: beginnings, no end

Iconophilia is pleased to introduce the work of The Precisionist of Pambula, Tom Bosman. Born in the Netherlands near Amsterdam in 1931, Tom came to Canberra in 1958, and has been a regular exhibitor with the Canberra Art Society since his early years here. Since his retirement to the coast he has devoted himself full-time to his passion for painting his surroundings.

Trained as a carpenter, draftsman, builder and engineer, Tom’s attraction to painting has been a constant if secondary factor in a busy life in many parts of the world, and finally in Australia.  In the post-war years his association with the Free Academy in Amsterdam (working at first with Willem Douch) introduced him to both historical and contemporary art.

This week Tom shares the spotlight at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery with The Magic Realist of Braidwood Jack Featherstone (born 1929), together with a bunch of local Bega High School students (born c.1994) in the show Forever Young: beginnings, no end. This exhibition, with its mellifluous title, is the curatorial work of Megan Bottari, and features the work of these two elders of the brush, plus the futurists of Gen Z, and is on show for the next month.

You can find Jack’s works in previous posts on Iconophilia. These iPhone snaps of Tom’s works date from the late 90s (Way behind Cobar, The Monaro, The Murrumbidgee Valley) and are characteristic of his Precisionist style, which seems to carry both echoes of his Dutch heritage, together with his home-grown sense of form, colour, and design. Precisionist, you ask? See here. Well spotted, Megan!

internalising the frame

Internalising the frame renders ambiguous the boundary between art and the everyday. Here’s two examples to chew on. First see how Jack Featherstone, the Magic Realist of Braidwood, has a way of positioning the viewer weightless above him as (as we imagine) he sits on a vantage point committing this scene of the Deua Valley, in southern New South Wales, to memory, and to his sketchbook? Then see how he has employed another pictorial device in the way he has framed the distant view of the mountains with the two groups of trees, to the left and right of his primary subject matter. These groups of trees are formally distinctive, strangely synthetic, and yet inviting. They form parallel bands, like saplings planted too closely together, but they are somehow out of scale, sitting in the middle distance. They act like curtains, framing the scene ahead of us, yet allowing the continuity of the landscape behind this plane to show through. To this viewer, they suggest a mobile vantage point, a capacity to look around corners. Very seductive.

The surface of this painting, (painted in 2007, in acrylic and oil on bark, 270 x 770) renders the depiction of these and other formal elements in minute detail with tiny dots and blobs of pigment. His perspectival control of deep space is enhanced by the intensification of blue as the far distant mountain ranges roll on past the bush-covered middle ground. There are introductory figures in the foreground (Jack’s family), and the viewer is invited to follow as the group sets off along the road as it twists and turns through the pictorial space.

By contrast, consider this painting by the late Micky Dorrng (b. ca. 1940, d. 2006), of the Liyagawumirr clan, who lived on Milingimbi and Elcho Islands in Central Arnhem Land. Sure, I accept that it’s an extreme example to choose for a comparison of the manipulation of form and space, nevertheless, there are commonalities to be teased out. Micky Dorrng’s painted abstract motifs are derived from ceremonial body painting designs, the referent for which is the djirrididi (kingfisher) narrative. As abstract as you can get. Yet some have claimed that the horizontal marks are the marks left by the tide on Mangrove tree trunks. Be that as it may, when painted on the body, these bold parallel brush strokes vary between vertical, horizontal and diagonal configurations, painted on the chest and upper thighs. Rendered on canvas or bark, they have the capacity to produce complex visual ambiguities, which we read through the lens of abstraction. It has been suggested (by Howard Morphy, and others) that the capacity for Yolngu painting to confuse the eye relates to their invocation of ancestral power.

This example, a small (life-size) canvas, was painted in 2001, (520 x 415, in ochres and acrylic on canvas). The viewer’s attention to the geometry of its forms oscillates between the framing bands and the central panel. Like the architecture of a theatre stage, the bottom panel (six colours: red, white, yellow, white, red, and white) establishes a foreground, mirrored by the upper lintel-like panel above. These top and bottom panels overlap the curtain-like panels on either side (painted in a different sequence: yellow, white, red, white, yellow, and white). When seen together with the side panels, you see how the artist has created the effect of a proscenium, the perfect illusion of inside-outside space.

When you analyse the central panel, you find it is composed of twenty five bands, starting and finishing top and bottom with yellow, and with yellow in the central horizontal axis. The eye plays tricks on the viewer: not only via the spatial effects of framing, foreground and background, but schematically. Why are the colours sequenced differently, horizontally and vertically, one asks? Then experience the excitement of discovery as you decode the sequence, realising that the different order of the bands above and below, and on the sides, also recur in the central panel, from different starting points. It’s harder than it seems. Your eye plays hopscotch as it searches for the starting point for each sequence.

And now ask: how is it that his geometry works so perfectly, given the irregularity of the lines of colour, drawn freehand, twelve lines up and twelve lines down from the horizontal axis, then six and six on the sides, then six and six above and below? The artist’s command over colour, material, and form, apparently so simple, is amazingly engaging. The eye never tires of decoding its rhythms. The surface never stops moving. The spatial ambiguities never stay still.

As with the Jack Featherstone, the viewer is imaginatively drawn into the central space, equally curious, no matter how different the referents may be. The first draws us into a detailed recounting of memorable experiences – almost as if the artist can’t believe his own eyes. The latter painting persuades us that the painted surface is permeable, and, as it references its origins as body paint, how such a painting may be experienced from the other side by the person who wears the painting on his chest.

In each case, pictorial and abstract, each operating within their own poetic code, one sees a process of layering of space, and a control over spatial ambiguity. Each sits at opposite ends of a spectrum of representational intent, cultures apart, and yet each employs pictorial devices that share common effects. Familiarity breeds… wonder.

P.S. The question of “Aboriginal abstraction” is discussed in more detail on ArtWranglers.

Fog over Braidwood

Every day the Magic Realist Jack Featherstone walks up Mt Gillamatong, a couple of clicks south-west of Braidwood. Recently, when he got to the top, he found the valley was blanketed in fog: “a real pea-souper”. Jack committed the scene to memory, and so, a week later, this painting (acrylic on stone) is the result… And then…

And then, Jack always exhibits in the Canberra Show. Last weekend this painting of Mt Bendethera and Deua Valley (looking due East to Moruya over the distant mountains) took out the Reserve Champion Prize (plus a number of others along the way). Jack was well pleased.

paintings on bark, paintings on stone


Iconophilia is pleased to introduce the work of Braidwood artist Jack Featherstone. Born in 1929, Jack is a prolific artist who for the last thirty years has painted scenes of everyday life in and around the local area and the South Coast of NSW –  as well as other personal and historical accounts of his journeys through Central Australia  and the Northern Territory.

jack_handel_668 This painting of a performance of Handel’s Messiah at Penrith is painted on Sydney sandstone.

hallofmemory_668 As well as his paintings on canvas, Jack has developed his own techniques of working on strips of bark taken from (dead) Mountain Ash trees (Euc. regnans), sourced from near Central Tilba, as well as the paintings on stone. This is one panel (the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial) from a series on the subject of Australia at war.

jack_studio_668Some of the paintings reproduce the original vertical format of a strip of bark, while others take advantage of the horizontal to depict his narratives in panoramic format. Here’s his latest work in progress in his studio.

Keep watching! We’ll be showing more of his work, and filling in the gaps, in the next month or so…